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Smart Mobility Lab opportunity shaped AI entrepreneur's journey

Umar Chughtai sitting on park bench
“Students who enroll in KTH can’t be shy. If you show you’re interested, people will reach out to you." (Photo: Isabella Englund)
Published Mar 17, 2021

An entrepreneurial journey that started at KTH has led alumnus Umar Chughtai to the threshold of success in the inspection drone business, and the signing of an exciting capital investment. 

Not many people remember their university exams as life-changing moments – but Umar Chughtai does. It happened during the middle of an exam in his Embedded Systems  master’s programme a few years ago. As the students worked quietly, Chughtai’s instructor suddenly turned heads by singling him out. 

“The professor comes up to me and says, ‘You!’ I was like, ‘Whoa – did I do something wrong?’ Did he think I was cheating?” Chughtai recalls.

Umar Chughtai holding inspection drone in field where power lines are
Umar Chughtai in the field, preparing for an inspection of power lines. (Photo: Skyqraft)

On the contrary the former KTH student was actually reaping the reward for “harassing” the professor over the previous several weeks. 

“He said to me, ‘You’re looking for a researcher job, right? I’ve got something for you.’”

Chughtai recalls this episode just weeks after raising $2.2 million (18.7 million Swedish kronor) in seed funding for his startup, Skyqraft, which deploys autonomous drones and uses artificial intelligence to inspect power lines and grid infrastructure – a method which he says is safer and more environmentally-sustainable. 

The machine learning  model for Skyqraft artificial intelligence (AI) traces its origins from that mid-exam surprise encounter. The job his professor referred him to was with the Smart Mobility Lab  at KTH, where Chughtai wound up working on his master’s thesis for the next two years. It was the kickoff of a winding entrepreneurial journey and, he says, proof of the benefit of being a “squeaky wheel.” 

“Had I not gotten that opportunity, this whole path wouldn’t have been presented to me,” he says. The way I got into the lab was that I was the squeaky wheel – always asking for oil. After classes, I would strike up conversations with professors, asking more questions and engaging them in talking about their research.

“Students who enroll in KTH can’t be shy. If you show you’re interested, people will reach out to you.”

Chughtai came to KTH after earning a BS in aerospace engineering at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana , U.S. (which has a strategic partnership with KTH ). In Stockholm he quickly noticed the advantages of a society where student debt is unheard of. 

The lack of such a financial burden is one element fueling a youthful entrepreneurial culture at KTH, he says. “The vibe in the U.S. is, ‘I have to find a steady income to pay off these loans.’ But here the vibe is ‘When I’m done with class I’m going downtown for a meeting with a venture capital firm.’”

He also found support for his creative spirit through the KTH Innovation pre-incubator program , which provides office space, coaching and other practical help for student startups. Chughtai didn’t continue with the two startups that he joined there, but he was hooked nevertheless.

“Once you jump on the entrepreneur journey, you’re always on the journey. It’s a way of life that you want to keep on living.”

David Callahan

Read more about Skyqraft at the company’s website, www.skyqraft.com .

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Last changed: Mar 17, 2021